Jean Renoir Peter John Dyer - Essay

Peter John Dyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

La Fille de l'Eau [is] an almost involuntary expression of several themes destined to preoccupy Renoir throughout his career…. Despite the coy story-titles, Renoir manages to lend the opening scenes considerable authenticity and persuasion, both in his economical portraits of the Raynal family—upstanding, college-boy son, rigidly puritanical mother, anonymous, bourgeois father preoccupied with his new car—and of the village itself, with its big house and courtyard, the surrounding farmland, the trees, rain-clouds, bridle-path, canal and barge. The film was shot on location, and in its feeling for café interiors, wooded exteriors, poachers, tramps, gipsies, rabbits and horses, cows lazing in the running water, one discovers exactly the same river-of-life metaphor which pulsates through Boudu, Partie de Campagne, Swamp Water, The Southerner, The River and Déjeuner sur l'herbe. (pp. 131-32)

Though the hero is rather a dull stick, or tends to become so in a trilby, there is no real suggestion of parody. The class theme, again a familiar one in Renoir's films, is played straight, almost portentously…. Behind the recurring image of the rich man patronising the poor … can be detected sometimes cutting irony, sometimes an almost defiant nostalgia, but never less than a generous, wholehearted response to people, whether of the old social order, the new or the one in decline. (p. 132)

Monsieur Lange is the first film to marshal Renoir's strengths and weaknesses, often side by side, for inspection. The brilliantly oblique sequence of Lange and the prostitute, for instance, is quickly followed by one of those flat-footed and old-fashioned scenes of sexual menace for which Renoir has retained a surprising taste, with practically no variations, ever since La Fille de l'Eau: the villain advances, leering, the helpless little victim retreats, cowering, the camera tracks in like a dentist's drill on a molar, the music rises to a crescendo….

Renoir's major films, especially his later ones, have often tended to seem a perverse tangle of compensations. Again and again, one finds passages of charm or delicacy threatened by others of portentous melodrama…. (p. 134)

Peter John Dyer, "Renoir and Realism," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1960 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1960, pp. 130-35, 154.